After a long day cooped up in a sweltering cave, I decide to meet up with my buddy, Buck, down at the watering hole like we always used to do on big moon nights. It’s one of the few times a month I can just relax and not have to worry about the pack or the wife or the pups, including the one human we adopted after his parents starved to death in the woods and we ate their remains.
The watering hole isn’t a nice place to hang out. The trees around it are hollow and decayed, and a thin layer of scum covers the murky water. It’s so shallow that most wolves think of it as more of a mud pit than a respectable place to socialize. But ever since we were young and trying to look cool for the she-wolves, it’s always been the place for Buck and I to grab a drink. And this was one of those nights where I really needed a drink.
I almost never get to see Buck anymore. As pack leader, I’m usually at the den pretending to give a damn about whatever bureaucratic shit is thrown my way, and as a hunter, Buck is usually out trying to find foode. Buck isn’t his real name, obviously. We gave it to him after he let a big deer get away and Buck told us, “When I looked into his eyes, I saw myself looking back,” and Buck never says poetic shit like that, so we had to give him this nickname, so he could never live it down.
Buck is my go-to guy because he’s a straight shooter and when you’re the leader of the pack sometimes you just need someone to shoot the shit with. My father always said, “If you’re gonna shoot the shit, may as well shoot it straight,” and hell if I know what that means, but the ol’ man was alpha so his word is law.
So anyways, I go down to meet Buck, and when I get there, he’s already there drinking and for some reason his fur is all slicked back nice-like, and I see he’s put some dead frogs in the water for flavor. I sidle up next to him and he takes his scruffy snout outta the water and says, “First rounds on me,” like a frigging big shot.
Before I say a word, I put my own big muzzle in the water and lap it up. The frogs he found were pretty tasty, and with the right amphibians you can get a nice buzz going too. I stay in there a while- I’m talking like my whole face, almost up to my eyeballs, which doesn’t even make drinking any more efficient since we lap up water with our tongues, but it feels refreshing. When I’m finally done, I pull my head out and Buck says, “One of those nights, huh,” and I say, “Don’t I know it,” and he says, “So what’s up?”
And before I come out and tell him how I’m on double shit duty between the pointless pack meetings at work and the rowdy pups at home, I ask him, “What’s with your fur, you dress up all fancy just for me?” and he grins, as much as a wolf can grin, and says, “Nah, I saw Cassidy tonight,” and I say, “If you saw Cassidy tonight, what the hell are you doing here?” and he just shrugs, as much as a wolf can shrug, and goes, “Tonight wasn’t my lucky night,” and I say, “Me neither, brother, me neither.”
He doesn’t say anything. He has this rule where if he asks “What’s up?” or “What’s wrong?” and you don’t answer the first time he doesn’t ask a second. So we take a couple more swigs from the water and I say, “Mel thinks it’s time for Cain to start shaving.”
“What’s shaving?” he asks me.
I furrow my brow and say, “I’m not really sure.”
And then I tell him how Cain has started to grow more of his long fur on parts of his face and crotch that he never grew long fur on before, and Buck says, “That’s great, that kid has almost no fur,” and I say, “I know, he only had it on the top of his head for the longest time,” and Buck says, “I didn’t want to say anything, but I always thought it was weird,” and I say, “It is fucking weird!” We both howl with laughter.
A few coyotes in the distance howl back.
“But anyway,” I continue, “Mel says that humans aren’t supposed to let their fur grow too long, and that for Cain to become a man he has to cut some of the fur off, and that’s shaving.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Buck says.
“I know,” I tell him, “But apparently it’s a human ritual and if a human male wants to become alpha they must learn shaving.”
“I dunno,” he muses, awkwardly raising a hind leg to scratch his scruffy chin, “Sounds like a myth.”
“That’s what I said,” I say, “But then she pulls out these papers with pictures of humans on them that we found near his human parents and points out all the male humans and how none of them let their face fur continue growing too much. She always notices stuff like that.”
So Buck thinks about it for a while and says, “Okay, but how do you know when the right time to start shaving is?”
And I say, “I don’t know, but I think it’s too early, Cain is just a pup.” And Buck says, “Right, how old is he again?” And I tell him Cain is 12 human years old, since humans count four seasons passing as a year. And Buck says, “That’s not that old.” And I say, “That’s what I told Mel, but she says that 12 human years is like 53 wolf years,” and Buck says, “Wow, Cain is old as fuck,” which made me snort frog water out of my nose.
“She says I need to be the one to teach him,” I say, and suddenly I find myself staring at the ground, unable to meet the gaze of my own reflection in the murky water, “But I don’t even know how to do it.”
“Right,” says Buck, “Is he supposed to use his teeth?”
“I have no idea,” I say.
And then we don’t say anything for a little bit, and my head is still drooping, and Buck breaks his rule and asks, “What’s wrong?”
I sigh and tell him quietly, “I don’t get Cain sometimes. Sure, he hunts with us, and eats with us, and suckles on Mel’s breasts with the other pups. But other times he picks up things with his paws instead of his teeth, and climbs up trees, and turns rocks and sticks into helping things, and I just don’t get it.”
“No father ever fully understands his pups,” says Buck, in spite of having no pups of his own, the lucky bastard, “But you’re trying.”
“I don’t wanna try. I just want to raise him right. But I don’t understand these rituals.”
“Look,” Buck says, looking at me, “The shaving ritual may not make sense, but the fact that you’re worrying so much over it means that you care. That’s the most important part of being a father.”
I shake my head, “My father never did rituals with me. He was so busy he couldn’t even take me on First Hunt. But that just made me stronger. Strong enough to be pack leader.”
And Buck says, “Not everyone wants to be pack leader. Most wolves would rather have a good father.”
And I feel a pain in my chest. I glance down and somehow see in the water my years as a pup. My father, returning to the den angry after a hunt turned up empty. Me running to Buck’s small cave, where his family let me stay whenever my father bared his teeth at me. Buck’s oldest brother by my side during First Hunt, as if I was his own pup. It reminds me of why I adopted Cain in the first place. I decide then that I will teach Cain shaving.
“I will teach Cain shaving,” I say.
“Good,” says Buck, “You’re a good father. We’ll think of a way to do the shaving.”
“A sharp rock or stick,” I suggest.
“Yes,” Buck replies, “Or maybe fire?”
I nod my head. Fire could work.
“The next time I’m on a hunt, I’ll keep an eye out for a sharp rock, or stick, or fire and let you know, and you can perform the shaving ritual with Cain.”
“Thanks, Buck,” I say. I find myself saying that a lot.
We hear a howl from the distance, and Buck’s ears perk up. We both howl back, along with all the other wolves within earshot, but we all know it’s for him.
“That’s Cassidy,” he says, “She wants to know if I’m still awake.”
I look up at the moon. It hangs high and bright in the sky now.
I grin at him, “You dog.”
He starts to turn away, but shoots me a final sly look and says, “I guess tonight’s my lucky night after all.” Then he bounds off into the darkness.
I turn back to look at the water once more, and no longer see the pup I once was. My reflection looks older than ever. My whiskers droop, and my once dark scruff has started to fade. This doesn’t come as a surprise though. My son is old enough to shave.
Jason Gong is a Philadelphia-based writer and professional technology guy. He has written for Points in Case and Philosophical Idiot, and co-written several short films. He runs a podcast called Page to Frame, where he and his friends read books and then watch movies based on the books, and then talk about them. You can find him on Twitter @page2frame.